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The Message

By J.H. Tompkins, San Francisco Bay Guardian

On a Monday morning in late March, a Los Angeles news radio station reported that the Israeli military would soon launch a campaign against Palestinian militants in the West Bank. The action, a commentator said, "promised bloodshed." President George W. Bush reiterated the nation's firm support for Israel in the war against terrorism. A meteorologist said temperatures in the San Gabriel Valley would peak later in the day at 90 degrees. The traffic report warned of a slowdown on the 101 southbound just past the Valley Circle Boulevard exit in Woodland Hills. Cars in the vicinity (that was me in the borrowed white Acura) crawled past a pair of badly dented luxury sedans that had pulled off onto the shoulder. Next to them two balding middle-aged men, each viciously swinging a short metal pipe adorned at one end with an American flag, were attempting to hurt each other.

The weapons of choice seemed appropriate given the day's news, and in a moment of private celebration I played "What Would You Do?" – a just-released single by Paris, once known as the Black Panther of Hip-Hop, that blasted American warmongering in the Middle East. " 'Cause Amerikkka's been took – it's plain to see / The oldest trick in the book is MAKE an enemy / Of phony evil now the government can do it dirt / And take away ya freedom lock and load, beat and search." I turned the volume up so loud a screw popped loose from the dashboard.


America post-Sept. 11 is a one-story world. Ignorance and blind obedience have been enshrined as patriotic principles, and the government-sanctioned information clampdown would do the old Soviet bloc proud. I don't know about you (how could I, under the circumstances?), but lately, a familiar line from the hip-hop canon – "it makes me wonder how I keep from goin' under" – is stuck in the back of my mind.

Actually, the whole song – "The Message," by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, released in 1982 and a big hit in its day – is wedged in there someplace. That March morning, as we inched down the freeway toward Los Angeles, two more lines popped up – "Sometimes I think I'm going insane / I swear I might hijack a plane!" – as I station-surfed through the A.M. dial trying to avoid bad news. I paused to check out a radio preacher sermonizing in a hillbilly twang. Sept. 11 was on his mind, too, although he felt the events that day could be summed up as "God's will." Ditto the revenge subsequently carried out by "our great nation."

I don't mean to imply that I believe in god, but I hate hearing his name evoked to justify murder. This preacher needed to answer a few questions about the Ten Commandments. I almost began the inquisition on the spot, hesitating for fear of alarming the woman driving, whom I barely knew. Instead, High Fidelity-style, I forced her to collaborate on an off-the-cuff 10 great political pop albums list. When we finished, it looked like this:

1. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Public Enemy)

2. Party Music (The Coup)

3. Catch a Fire (The Wailers)

4. Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury (Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy)

5. AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted (Ice Cube)

6. London Calling (The Clash)

7. Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (Dead Kennedys)

8. Let's Get Free (Dead Prez)

9. Flashpoint (The Looters)

10. The Devil Made Me Do It (Paris)

The list involved a lot of compromises – there was no room for the Heptones' "Book of Rules," for example – but we were satisfied. Besides, it made the bumper-to-bumper drive tolerable, so much so that I was sorry when we didn't have time to cover the 10 best books about revolution and pop music.

For the record, that one would have started with Time Passages, by UC San Diego professor George Lipsitz, who writes that jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk "created a history that could be hummed, a story of the past that relied on sharps and flats, instead of footnotes." The book helped me understand the divine, melancholy power of the flatted third, and why on Paris's "What Would You Do?" the simple, repeated keyboard figure gives me goosebumps when Paris enters with his powerful baritone, rapping, "I see a message from the government, like every day."

Man on a mission

"When I first heard the song, it knocked me off my feet," activist-DJ David "Davey D" Cook told me recently. "The fact that Paris came with it from that artistic bent and was trying to go on a mission and make a difference, that floored me."

Both men were in the thick of the vibrant Bay Area hip-hop scene in 1990 when Paris's debut album, The Devil Made Me Do It, was released. At that time Cook had a popular, nationally important Sunday-morning slot on UC Berkeley's KALX, 90.7 FM. Conscious hip-hop – imaginative, often politically ambitious work created for the most part beyond the compromising influences of corporate music – was flourishing. Left-field artists like Public Enemy, X-Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, and Boogie Down Productions defined a young, powerful hip-hop culture that was brimming with promise. In the March 24, 2002, edition of his FNV online newsletter, a weekly assortment of news and commentary relating to the world of hip-hop and beyond, Cook recalled a 1992 Paris performance of the song "Bush Killa" – a fantasy assassination of then-president George Bush – in front of 22,000 people at a sold-out KMEL Summer Jam.

"Before he did the song, he stopped the music and gave a speech about racism," Cook wrote to his audience of more than 100,000 subscribers. "He talked about the concept of white world supremacy and how the entire planet was subjected to that particular system. Afterward, he dropped the song and 22,000 people stood up and cheered."

As the music's popularity mushroomed, the culture around it changed, and Paris – like many artists from that period – gave way to a new generation. The old guard will tell you that hip-hop has changed for the worse. After he released a third album, Guerrilla Funk, in 1994, a degree in economics from UC Davis helped the rapper build a successful career working in the financial markets. But after the attacks on the World Trade Center towers, "the wheels," as he once put it, "started to spin."

"I put 'What Would You Do?' together for a forthcoming album I'm going to call Sonic Jihad," Paris explained at an early-April meeting at an Orinda café. "You could call it a counterpropaganda measure. And I have to give it up to Davey because he single-handedly got the word out. I knew he had the KPFA show, and I called him up and asked, 'Why don't you spin this on your show and see what the response is?' He liked it so much that he just loaded it onto the site, and we put it out. People listened and had so many questions that I wrote an answer piece on the site. Then it really started blowing up."

The Web site was flooded with responses – thousands of them, according to Paris – asking the same questions Americans from all walks of life are asking and few media outlets are attempting answers. The questions, archived at Davey D's Hip Hop Corner (, triggered a burst of unorchestrated political debate – exactly what was missing from a mainstream media that seems to conduct polls during lunch hour at the Pentagon ("Pardon me, General, but what's your opinion on ...). The Web site offers a door into the vast, diverse, often maligned world of hip-hop. "The response was overwhelming," Cook told me. "It was like a thirsty plant getting rain. People were like, "Thank god someone has said it. And thank god they used hip-hop to do it.' "

Pressure and performance

Paris rolled up to the interview in a late-model BMW, and I told him, half kidding, that people would try to use his financial success to discredit his politics. He laughed and said, "What, I'm going to make excuses for being successful? Are people only comfortable dealing with a black man when he's broke?"

Cook bristled when we talked about the same thing a few weeks later. "The people who claim that the fact he has money somehow proves what he says isn't real, they'd be the first to yell if he hadn't said anything at all," he said sharply. "When Paris came to me, he said, 'Look, I'm financially set, so I can say what I want to say without fear of economic reprisals. I just want to get this message out there.' "

Both men are keenly aware of how corporate interests use fear and intimidation to keep people in line. Cook had bitter, firsthand experience with that shortly after Sept. 11. He had worked for years at the Bay Area's once-pioneering hip-hop station KMEL, 106.1 FM, a relatively recent acquisition of media conglomerate Clear Channel Communications. In late September 2001, on the issues-oriented Sunday-morning talk show he hosted, Cook interviewed East Bay representative Barbara Lee (\articleP80.asp) about being the sole dissenting voice in Congress concerning the war in Afghanistan. Shortly thereafter he was dismissed by station management (see "Channel Zero," 10/10/01).

"They can say that it was budget cuts until they're blue in the face, but there's a bigger picture," he told me. "It was almost like, 'Yo, you gotta go right now, pack your stuff today. Leave. These are the marching orders.' "


"At its best," Paris told me, "hip-hop represents truth, real reality, not made-up reality. In the heyday of hip-hop, it was about being the best, making the best possible hip-hop. I believe that in a few years a lot of today's artists will be embarrassed by what they're doing now. My engineer once explained it like this: 'I can make a chair that's a work of art, or I can make a chair you can sit your ass on.' That's the difference between an artist and a craftsman."

No matter what you think about hip-hop today, it's been a long time since the summer of 1989, when Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" anchored the soundtrack to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. The fact that distributors and critics all but accused Lee of trying to start riots with the film – as if art and not social conditions triggered outbursts of anger – was telling. It's almost amusing to remember that Lee had not yet been accepted as a legitimate voice by America's cultural gatekeepers.

Hip-hop was in a similar spot. The music wasn't yet generating huge profits, nor had it emerged as a powerful sales vehicle. Longtime Bay Guardian contributor Jeff Chang, whose book Can't Stop, Won't Stop: The History of the Hip-Hop Generation will be published in 2003, remembers a time when, as he put it, "the demographics of America were changing. No longer was white going to be right all the time. The world was becoming multicultural, and it wouldn't change back. Domestic struggles around affirmative action and welfare were galvanizing people of color in the U.S., as was the fight against apartheid in South Africa. America's political leaders were out of touch, a situation mirrored in the music industry. It made for times that were culturally very rich."

During the '90s a variety of political and social problems loomed large in the relatively young, fertile world of hip-hop. Most were linked to what seemed like the sudden, enormous spike in the music's popularity. But when examined from a post-Sept. 11 perspective, they seem almost insignificant. A pair of lines from "What Would You Do?" speak to the confusion created by the attacks and the subsequent war in Afghanistan: "Now even niggas wavin' flags like they lost they mind / Everybody got opinions but don't know the time."

Walking the point

Lifelong outlaw Boots Riley of the Coup claimed, only half-seriously, in a recent conversation that he'd rather be a community organizer than a rapper. Perhaps that explains why he was unperturbed after Sept. 11 when the group's original album cover – featuring Boots in front of the World Trade Center holding a guitar tuner as if it were a timing device – rocketed the group into the international spotlight.

"Take as an example the average person whose whole life's dream was to be a singer," he explained. "I won't name names, but I personally know five mainstream multiplatinum R&B singers who are vehemently against the war but are afraid to say anything about it. They actually think that it will affect their careers, and you know what? I can't say that it won't."

Riley – talking from Fort Wayne, Ind., where the Coup was on the road – continued with an anecdote about the current tour, which is sponsored by SoBe. "Here's what happened recently," he said. "Even though it wasn't officially said by SoBe, somewhere along the way someone asked the production manager if he could get me to tone down the antiwar shit because SoBe representatives are going to be in the house. Of course, with me, all it did was get me going to say 'Fuck you.' "

As corporate consolidation continues, the financial bottom line rises more quickly to the top of dealings between artists and labels. Riley has one approach to the dialogue that necessarily ensues; Paris's financial perch is also solid protection of his moral high ground.

"Paris can take the punch," Cook said. "The artist has to make his or her way up the KMEL playlist, and KMEL is owned by Clear Channel, and you don't ever want to piss anyone off [with that much clout]. The list goes on and on, where you have to basically deal with corporate interests. So you bite your tongue and bite your tongue. And Paris is like, 'I'm not trying to feed my kid with this record; I'm trying to get a point of view out.' And to me, that's exactly what a person should do."

Spearhead's Michael Franti is a veteran of two major-label record deals, with Island (as a member of Disposable Heroes) and Capitol (in Spearhead). In 2001, Spearhead released Stay Human, on local indie Six Degrees. Franti's career has been, by necessity, a hands-on experiment in survival.

"I think that it's important to look at the way that the music world has changed in the last 10 years," Franti said while taking a break from work on a new album. "Only then can you understand why there are so few voices being heard. There used to be a time when there was a number of big record labels that would sign artists. Island had U2, Bob Marley, Tom Waits, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Grace Jones, Black Uhuru – all kinds of artists who were making powerful political statements."

Hooked on information

"I'm black and I'm proud and I'll fight cause I'm amped / Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps." I rapped those lines to myself from Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" in February 1999 while walking home from Oakland's Alice Street post office with four sheets of Malcolm X stamps in my pocket. It was a victory, and I give all the credit to Chuck D whether he had anything to do with it or not.

"I don't know if music can change the world overnight," Franti told me, "but I do know that music can help us make it through the difficult nights."

I felt that way when Franti and his band played in Precita Park only days after Sept. 11 to provide a gathering place for anyone questioning the rush to war. Riley and Wil-Dog Abers from Ozomatli were similarly outspoken at a time when questioning the government was being treated in the media as if it were treason. Every so often – not always, but once in a while – I don't know what I'd do without "What Would You Do?"

"I tell people to quit complaining about the media and become the media," Jello Biafra told me a week before the release of a new live album, The Big Ka-Boom, Part One, recorded in Madison, Wis., in November 2001. "Sit down and talk to people, try to reason with them. Information is like that first tattoo: people get hooked on it. Noam Chomsky pointed out that protests have come a long way in the past 30 or 40 years and that we're much better at it today. He claims that when America started bombing South Vietnam in 1962, there were no protests at all. America doesn't want another major war."

Riley made sure to say that it was too simple to put today's commercial artists in one narrow category and dismiss them. "You can think a lot of rappers are just about bling bling, but when you listen to stuff beyond just the singles, you'll find out that people like Juvenile and Trick Daddy are about more than that," he said. "Also, a lot of why people are excited about seeing Jay-Z in a Rolls Royce or Manny Fresh with a bunch of girls is because that's the only picture many of them have of a black person free from oppression."

I was happy to hear that I didn't have to hide my fondness for Juvenile – I can't stop listening to "Keep the Party Goin'," from The New Guy soundtrack (or Mystikal's "The New Guy," or almost anything by Mystikal, really) as well as cuts like "Back That Azz Up" and "Ha." And lately, I've been playing Cee-Lo's Cee-lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections (especially "Bad Mutha" and "Closet Freak") and Masters at Work's Our Time Is Coming," and The Ballatician, E-40's new album.

Hanging loose

At the other end of that same Los Angeles day – the fight between dueling patriots in the morning could've happened a year ago – the sun was down, taking the heat with it, the freeway was clear, and with the windows down we were flying north back into the Valley. The driver – we knew each other better by that time – grabbed a CD from the floor of her car and, steering with her knees at 80 miles an hour, tore off the wrapper. It was Earth, Wind, and Fire's That's the Way of the World: Alive in '75, newly reissued, and when the opening bars of "Shining Star" began to play, it sounded as right as "What Would You Do?" sounded 14 hours earlier. She cranked up the volume, and in a minute or so another screw bounced out of the dashboard and fell onto the floor.

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